Why People Stay in Abusive Relationships

In a thread entitled “[I]s this abuse?” in the “Submissive Women” group on Fetlife, subbiegirl9 describes a situation in which a male dominant friend of hers is trying to turn a basically vanilla woman into a slave, and is going about it by “[B]asically [doing] the things he is into doing but without her consent, prior discussion or her even liking it”. The woman keeps telling him this is abusive, and not how a relationship should be, but in the end always forgives him and somehow reportedly gives him the idea that she secretly likes what he’s doing to her.  The poster has become very worried about the situation, and wanted to know if this was out of line and abusive, and if so, how to get through to the guy.

Darlin’, yes, it absolutely is abuse.  Even if she secretly likes it, she hasn’t consented beforehand, and continues to object.

It’s also rape, sexual assault and battery, domestic violence, and probably a few other things that could be separately charged.

Bottom line, it’s nonconsensual – and that just ain’t OK.

As often happens in discussions about abuse, other posters wanted to know why she’d stay in an abusive relationship, particularly when she herself already recognizes that it is abusive.

Truthfully, why women stay with guys like this that can be quite a complicated answer.  There are many possible reasons, and often more than one is in operation.

Many of us who end up in and stay in abusive relationships get there because we’ve had a history of being abused, and at some level, it’s not only familiar, but what we’re drawn to precisely because it’s what we know best.  Hope tends to spring eternal that he’ll change, or that you’ll be able to find some way to get through to him that will make the problems stop.

Oftentimes, the victim thinks it’s somehow her fault – and indeed, frequently the abuser tells her that himself.  Denial also is a very strong element operating, because when you’re with someone you care about and have had high hopes for the relationship, you have a strong motivation to try to find some way out of the situation, or to make yourself believe that it’s really not as bad as it actually feels, that you know it actually is.

It can take a very long time for any person who is abused to work their way through to the conclusion that nothing you can try will change things, no matter how smart your abusive partner is, and so, in the meantime, you still end up staying and trying to work things out.  The rest of the world, not knowing what is actually happening (or not believing it), just sits there and passes judgment, saying she should just leave and that because she doesn’t, that must mean she isn’t actually abused, or that it just “isn’t that bad”.  That by itself is a hard judgment to face, particularly when it comes from people you care about and you believe ought to know better.  That alone might contribute further to her having difficulty leaving.

Oftentimes men who see fit to force their partners to do things they don’t want to do the way the OP’s friend is doing to his new partner threaten them if they tell or leave.  Or they threaten the victim’s children, pets, and/or other family members.  The first abusive guy I was with made death threats to me and my whole family when I left, via endless harassing phone calls, in an attempt to intimidate me into coming back.  And that was after he very nearly did kill me in a blind, incoherent rage.  It was beyond terrifying, and took years to heal from.

Or they do actually harm the children, pets, or relatives, or victim herself, or do something else that makes it really obvious that they will indeed follow through if the woman doesn’t stay.  If a woman thinks that others she loves will be harmed if she leaves her abuser (or that he’ll come after her and kill her), the incentive to stay is incredibly strong.

The injuries may even look accidental or incidental – until enough of them happen that a clear pattern of either deliberately or carelessly doing them eventually emerges, particularly despite much communications about them being a problem for that person and maybe promises to not repeat them.  Or they might be things that might not harm another, but do harm this particular woman – and yet they are still repeated anyways.

The net result is still fear that they will happen again if she resists – because they always have.

These sorts of things can still happen quite early on in a relationship.  They are not limited to longer term pairings.

The threats can also be subtle or implied, conveyed only by an attitude, temper tantrums when they don’t get their way, etc.  The effect is the same as overt threats – it creates fear, which includes the fear of leaving, and the fear of what will happen if she does not go along with the abuser’s demands, no matter the cost to herself.

Oftentimes an abused woman won’t leave because she is completely financially dependent on the abuser, and can’t leave, particularly if there are also children involved.  She may have no money of her own, no transportation, no safe place to go, etc.

Then there are possible religious reasons, especially if the couple is married.  Catholicism, of course, prohibits divorce, so many women stay in bad and abusive marriages because they don’t want to be excommunicated, and fear the wrath of the church and going to hell more than they fear the abuser in their house.

In the Jewish community, there is a huge misconception that we don’t even have abuse (or alcoholism or drug addiction) in our midst, as if we’ve got some kind of genetic protection from these problems, which is of course patently inaccurate, but the myth persists.  Mass community denial of this sort fuels an even greater inability to recognize it when it happens to us, particularly when our partners are also Jewish, so we tend to look for other explanations for what is going on because we cannot even recognize it for what it is, at least early on.  If you grow up believing that it’s not even possible for abuse to happen to you for a reason like this, or it’s not even possible for the man you’re with to do it, how would you ever recognize it, much less admit to it and leave when it does?  Even knowing better intellectually, this kind of early conditioning still keeps operating at a deep level and may contribute strongly to why the abused woman doesn’t leave.

For the extremely observant in particular, the fairy tale is even more pervasive than in the more liberal branches of the religion, and people can end up with zero community support (in a particularly tight-knit community) and losing everything at a time when they most need it if they break these kinds of religious taboos.  A frum (very orthodox) Jewish woman may never even be able to get free of her husband and able to marry again, because a) divorce in those circles requires that she obtain permission from a rabbinical court, and b) that her husband give her what is called a “get”, which is his own permission – and it is far from unheard of for husbands to be willing to give the get just to keep control of her life long after she may have left.

She can, of course, still obtain a legal divorce in secular courts, but no one in their circles (including she herself) will ever consider her actually divorced until both the rabbis decree it and the husband gives the get, so that is rarely a real option for these women.  Even if both happen, she becomes “tainted goods” in those circles and others will shun her as a potential mate, and even altogether.  At the same time, religiously, the man can divorce her by something as simple as turning around three times and telling her he’s divorcing her.  With usually a large brood of children to care for, few observant women are willing to risk this, especially if they have no other means of supporting themselves – which women with a lot of children typically do not have.  And if shunned like this, she may well actually be considered dead, which has an even greater set of repercussions to herself and the others she loves.

No doubt some other religions have their own variations on these themes.

Abusive men are often quite charming, too, to the point of being widely loved and respected by others who have no idea on the planet what they’re actually like at home, and to the point that people often don’t believe the victim’s tales of what is being done to them.

These types may then end up turning everyone who might be sympathetic to the victim against her.  Social isolation may result, which makes it harder for someone to leave, because it may leave her without an adequate support system.  This is a particular problem in small communities.  And because people tend to believe him over her (because he’s often much quieter, and apparently oh so nice, and she may be more vocal), people often don’t believe her because what she says doesn’t match what others see.

The woman often ends up with her own support system completely undermined, and even her own friends turned against her, including, weirdly enough, other women who have themselves been abused severely and managed to get out and find a way to avoid abusers, and who claim to understand the whole dynamic because they’ve been there.  The fear of not being believed and ending up without friends and a support system from a situation like this can thus be an extremely powerful incentive to stay in an abusive relationship.
She might also begin to wonder what is wrong with her that she does not see the wonderful angel that others think he is.

Appearances can be exceptionally deceiving, though – look at people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.  They were quiet and kept to themselves, never caused anyone any problems, were helpful to neighbors, etc., and so everyone thought they were such nice guys.  Their secret lives behind closed doors, however, told a very different story – and should serve as a cautionary tale about the extent to which abusers can go when no one else can see them doing it.

Most abusers, of course, don’t do such heinous things, and if they do, are not able to hide it as effectively for as long, but the issue is still the same – an incredibly nice, upstanding pillar of the community-type presentation to the rest of the world, but a holy terror and perhaps real potential death threat behind closed doors, where no one else can see them operating in their true colors.  And because they are nice and charming to everyone else, people have a very hard time believing the tales of abuse behind closed doors by the partners.

Also, just because they say all the right things in public, or online, that does not mean they actually practice what they preach at home.  It is infuriating and frustrating beyond words to see them promoting appropriate behaviors they themselves have never practiced at home (and maybe violate the very same day or later in the same week in which they have made these pronouncements), ranting rabidly at others for doing exactly the same negative things they themselves have done, claiming to do the “right” things they never actually did, etc.

If a woman tells you her partner has been abusive to her, and particularly if she describes specific actions like violations of limits, ignoring safewords, temper tantrums, etc., especially if there is a consistent pattern to those complaints, please, please, don’t just dismiss her claims out of hand because her partner seems to be one of these upstanding types and has been nice and never shown this side of himself to you.

The smarter they are, too, the better they tend to be at hiding their abusiveness of their partner from others outside the relationship, but also at keeping even their victims from fully registering what’s actually going on – and then pinning the responsibility on them.

And just because another partner says they aren’t abusive, doesn’t mean the guy hasn’t been abusive to the one who says he is.  Abuse is not determined by how many people the abuser abuses, but by what he does to a particular person.  They aren’t always abusive to everyone, including other partners (although such patterns do tend to repeat themselves, at least eventually).  There’s nothing to say that those other partners don’t have such deep-seated issues or depravity of their own that they themselves either don’t recognize what’s happening or aren’t themselves in denial about it.  Or maybe they just haven’t seen that side of him yet for any number of possible reasons.  Or they’ve got their own other set of reasons for not making their own abuse known to others or leaving.

In addition, few abusive relationships are 100% all bad, and are often actually quite good in many other ways.  Along with the charm they turn on to others, abusers can be extremely charming, generous, and even quite wonderful at other times within the same relationship in which they are abusing their partners, as well as to others.  It’s particularly hard when there is a lot of other good happening to decide to give that up, because when you leave someone who is toxic to you, you also leave behind whatever was good about that person and the relationship.  It can be an extraordinarily difficult decision, especially when overall compatibility is extremely high.

Then there’s gaslighting, where they make you feel like you’re the crazy one for protesting what they are doing, or they blame you for being the cause of the issues, when it’s really them, and get you to actually believe the same thing.  When that goes on for long enough, you end up seriously doubting your own perceptions, and then it becomes really hard to leave, because you’re no longer sure that the problem you thought was there really is due to them – or, in fact, is even actually real to start with!  This sort of thing tends to deeply undermine one’s self-confidence and self-esteem, which only makes it all the harder to walk away.

Life with abusers tends to go in pretty predictable cycles, where a lot of abuse will occur, then a “honeymoon” period when everything seems fine and as if things will finally work out, and the abuser may even be quite apologetic and go out of his way too woo his victim back.  For many of us, it’s easy to get sucked back into all of that lovey-dovey stuff that mirrors what they did when things were still fresh and new (and happy), and to think repeatedly (and often for very good reason) that things are finally getting better this time – and then the whole cycle starts all over again.  It can take quite a while for it to sink in exactly what’s happening, and to fully recognize the cycle.

By then, you’ve usually got enough invested in the relationship that it’s hard to walk away from because of what is still good and perhaps other reasons as well.

It’s also not uncommon for the abuser to blame his victim for her own abuse, or to pin the blame for the cycling back to it on her, telling her that she is the abusive one, or that she somehow “made” him do it.

And in fact, her reaction to whatever he is doing may well look like the precipitating factor, particularly if his abusiveness tends to be subtle and potentially plausibly deniable.

Usually no one else in such a woman’s entire life has ever told her that she’s abusive, though, and she may in fact be widely known for her compassion, caring, understanding, and supportive nature – but suddenly she’s abusive with this one person?

Oftentimes these people will leave a trail of destruction behind themselves, a life littered with lovers and others who are close to them who say he is abusive, has a nasty temper, is dismissive or belittling, are afraid of him, or he himself acknowledges in so many words that he has been abusive to.

But suddenly, she is the abusive one for objecting to what he does, trying to maintain her own boundaries and limits, and keep her own self safe?

  Sorry, it just doesn’t happen that way.

Not to mention that the vast majority of women’s abuse of men, when it happens, is actually in response to and often self-defense against abuse by her partner.

But men who pin their own abusiveness on their partners tend to just ignore their own role (or justify it as her somehow “making” him do it), and often manage to convince their victim that she herself is, for one reason or another, either the abusive party herself, or the direct cause of her own abuse. Such things can be absolutely crazymaking, and lead to such self-doubt that that that alone makes it hard to leave.

Then there are the rescuers and codependants, who tend to think they cannot or should not leave someone who is obviously hurting so much as to strike out at the ones they say they love, that somehow just because they started up with these guys that means they’ve got to stay no matter what is happening, particularly if the guy is going through a rough time.  Because you shouldn’t kick a person when he’s down, dontcha know, and friends/lovers should be loyal to each other at all costs, no questions asked, until the end of time.  Even if they’ve only known each other for a very short period of time.

When marriage vows or other promises are involved, a sense of honor and not being willing to break one’s word can be very strong and also lead to an unwillingness or inability to leave.

At one point, I left the guy I was with because of everything he was doing, then realized I’d made a mistake (or so I thought).  We did get back together – but as one of the conditions, he also made me promise I’d never leave him again, no matter what, that if either of us wanted to leave, we’d only do so if we mutually agreed to end things, even if one of us literally threatened the other’s life.  For a time after that, it appeared that we would indeed be OK.  But later, when things really got bad, there were a number of times I dropped large hints that I thought we should end things (I felt I couldn’t come right out and say it because of the promise I’d made), and even went so far as to actually suggest that maybe we should put the relationship out of its misery, but he never picked up on them or agreed, and so I remained committed to trying to work things out no matter what, at times only because that was what I’d promised to do.  I knew there would be no turning back if I did say I wanted to leave, so I’d better be absolutely, 100% certain that that was indeed the only way to end the problems, and that I was willing to live with the consequences – and for a very long time (far too long), I wasn’t, despite the problems.

I also rationalized staying by thinking that every couple had problems at times, and the only way to really deal with them was to meet them head on and to continue to deal with them and work through them.  Even though, in order to stay safe, I had to set new boundaries at times (or make others more explicit) that I told him would be dealbreakers if they happened again (which he took to be threats to leave, but weren’t, because they left the matters entirely in his own hands), I was still bound and determined to honor the promise I’d made him,and to do anything in my power to sort things out.

Long before, we’d already agreed that this relationship was going to be for life, and particularly after the promise not to leave, I took that as seriously as a marriage vow, and my commitment was to do whatever it took to work things out.   And since I consider a collar the equivalent of a wedding ring (absent only the legal status), once he collared me, it became virtually unthinkable to even consider leaving even once I finally came to the conclusion that I really needed to.

Finally, to acknowledge that one is in an abusive relationship in the first place also requires the abused party to face the fact that something is likely wrong with her own “picker”, as one of my friends once put it.  That she either missed some key red flags early on, or deliberately ignored or didn’t recognize the full significance of others she did see.  That is an extremely painful and difficult thing to face, especially if she has done a lot of work on herself and learning how to spot and avoid abusers, and come a long way in keeping herself safe from them.

Oftentimes, many or all of these factors may be operating, and contributing to why a woman would stay in an abusive relationship, especially once she herself recognizes it for what it is.

By the time you sort through all of these kinds of issues and finally realize that you really are in an abusive relationship, it can really be hard to get out because of ties that have been formed, and more.

In some cases of the nature that the OP describes, it’s even possible that the victim is actually drawn to what’s happening (as in may actually be submissively or masochistically driven), but may have a hard time admitting that even to herself.  Or she may think she deserves this kind of treatment for any number of possible reasons in addition to him managing to convince her of this.

To the people who say that it couldn’t really be that bad or she’d have left by now, all I can say is that you’ve simply got no idea how incredibly wrong you are.

To those who only believe him, realize that abusers are particularly good at pulling the wool over other people’s eyes.  If you yourself were not there, you have no right to judge, or to tell anyone else, including the victim, what actually happened – because you don’t fucking actually know.  I can just about guarantee that you’ve been fed a line of BS that’s been totally fabricated by the abuser, because that’s what they specialize in, as part of the way that they control their victims, as discussed above.

2 thoughts on “Why People Stay in Abusive Relationships

  1. So, you want to learn how to be a slave. Well, the only thing I can teach you is how to be MY slave, because it is, as they say, “A Mutual Admiration Society.” The first thing I have to know is, Do You, In Fact, WANT to Be My SLAVE?” Because, while I may love to go on that path with you, we are going no where unless you walk with me, side by side, and tell me consistently that this is right for you. I am not really into non consensual slavery. It is WAY to much work, and has some serious moral and legal implications that I would rather avoid. OK?

    What, guys, there aren’t enough women out there who like the idea, you have to go out and force it on someone who DOESN’T want it? Well, my first thought is that you haven’t really accepted it yourself, so you don’t stand up and admit to it. How about, “Hi, my name is [something or other]. You look like an incredibly interesting and exciting woman. Personally I am into the erotic possibilities of consensual slavery. How about you?”

    Be who you are, gentleman, and find your exciting, willing and lusting mate.

    Gee, this sounds like a blog in itself. Might just do that. (Thank you, my dear klg.)

    The Eroticist

    • You know, the really sad part is that in some cases, the submissive or slave really does start out wanting it (submission, slavery, or just plain masochism – whichever the case may be). But the dominant then tries to push too hard for too much too soon, or violates limits, pushes too hard for trust when there is no basis for it yet (or expects it to magically reappear in an unreasonable time frame after violating it), ignores and rides roughshod over issues such as medical problems, injures her and doesn’t even apologize, etc.
      Eventually, the need to protect oneself turns into a remarkable unwillingness replacing what really was once eager desire.

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